Bridge School in Xiashi, China

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2011


Off a winding, mountain road in rural Fujian province, the small Chinese village of Xiashi is divided by a steep-banked river.  Centuries ago, on either side, rival clans – one with the family name Shi, which means stone, and the other Lin, which means wood – built tall, circular, earth-walled communal housing known as tulou, a structure unique to this region of China.  On the outside, the tulou appears like a fortress, dun hued and impregnable; inside, it is a marvel in dark, aged wood as several tiers of apartments, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, rise up to encircle a common area open to the sky where livestock are quartered and cooking fires are ablaze.  Everyone within a tulou shares a family name and common destiny and in Xiashi the structure’s thick, high walls offered protection in the long, bitter conflict with the clan across the river.

Today, even the elders in the village cannot tell me the origins of the conflict; only the fact of it remains, as eternal as the elements that make up the clan names.  But the nature of the conflict has changed, in part because of a new, more contemporary structure that has taken form in Xiashi in the last few years: a steel-framed bridge across the river, that leads, by design, directly from the entrance of one tulou to the other.  The bridge is as human and social in purpose as the tulou adjacent to it, consisting of two levels: above, a bright, airy, two-room communal space – initially a schoolhouse, now a public library – in blond wood, with narrow slatted brise soleil that shade the interior and give the structure a more delicate appearance than its size would otherwise suggest; below, a meandering walkway suspended from steel cables that recalls the zigzag design of bridges in traditional Chinese gardens.  When the wide accordion doors are opened it becomes a building without beginning or end, where interior and exterior space flow freely into each other.

The bridge is the work of Beijing architect Li Xiaodong and his student Chen Jiansheng, who lives near the village, and though modest in scale (it was made for less than $80,000) it represents something bigger than the small village in which its located, because it attempts to address the architecture of the past rather than replace it.  This is unusual for China, where modernization has come in such a great, disruptive burst that almost everywhere the past is gone; or, in those few places where it still appears visible, it often has been built anew in an approximation of the old style.  But in Xiashi, the bridge does not pretend to be old: its relationship to traditional village life is more profound than mere surface style.

The architects have posed a question, then, about whether new structures can save old ways of life, but the answer is not yet known.  The tulou is made of natural materials so must be inhabited to be preserved; once abandoned, it is deprived of life, of maintenance, and starts to deteriorate from rain and decay.  Now, when I walk around the communal space of the tulou at ground level, I can hear the clink of dishes or the murmur of conversation from those still resident and feel some of the life force that continues to course through this community.  But the upper floors are a reproach, dark and silent, from those families that have moved out of the tulou; in places, the roof has begun to cave in or walls have collapsed and it is too perilous to venture far beyond the sturdy central staircase.

The bridge provides a way to pass from one clan’s stronghold to the other but it also creates an entirely new space between the two, a neutral ground where the elderly meet for tea and conversation and put aside old enmities and the young have learned that stone and wood are not so very different after all.  Is it enough?


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Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets or the country names to see more of Sean’s photographs of China, Hong Kong, or Macau.